Major Dude, Candidate Clash Again In Friday's Grade 2 Penn Mile - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Major Dude, Candidate Clash Again In Friday’s Grade 2 Penn Mile

Bolt d’Oro colt Major Dude and Irad Ortiz Jr. team to win the G3 Kitten’s Joy

Changing approaches to training and the decision often to duck major confrontations until the Breeders' Cup has sharply reduced the number of major rivalries that create excitement among racing fans.

On Friday night, however, Major Dude and Candidate – two of the most promising 3-year-old turf stakes horses in the country – face off for the third time in the ninth running of the Grade 2, $400,000 Penn Mile on the grass at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa.

The most important race of the year at the track drew a high-quality field of eight runners and highlights an 11-race card featuring six stakes races worth a combined $950,000.

The supporting features are topped by the $150,000 Penn Oaks, which attracted a field of nine, led by 9-5 morning-line favorite Princess Bettina, a resounding gate-to-wire winner in March of the China Doll Stakes at Santa Anita.

Post time for the first race is 5 p.m. ET with the Penn Mile scheduled to go off as race number six at 7:45 p.m.

Famed race announcer Larry Collmus, who calls the Breeders' Cup World Championships and first two legs of the Triple Crown, will call the Penn Mile as well as the five other stakes races. Race fans are invited to meet Collmus at the track apron beginning at 4:30 p.m.

Spendthrift Farm's Major Dude, the 8-5 favorite on the morning line, comes into the Penn Mile off a half-length defeat when third following a tremendous stretch battle in the Grade 2 American Turf on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs.

After beating Candidate to win the Grade 3 Kitten's Joy in February at Gulfstream Park, Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher ran Major Dude in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Stakes to see if the turf ace might also be a Triple Crown contender. Major Dude was beaten as the favorite that day on the synthetic Turfway Park surface, but his credentials were sharply enhanced when winner Two Phil's came back to nearly upset the Kentucky Derby, only losing the lead late in the stretch to Mage and finishing second.

“We were kicking it around,” Pletcher said of the idea of running Major Dude in the Derby. “At the time, it looked like he was going to be second on the also-eligible list, which it turned out would have got him in. On entry day, we preferred to know we were in the body of the American Turf. He's a very solid horse on all surfaces, but, in the end, we know he's best on turf.”

Major Dude, who will be ridden by champion jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in the Penn Mile, has competed in eight straight stakes races since breaking his maiden on debut last summer at Monmouth Park. He's won the Grade 2 Pilgrim along with the Kitten's Joy. One of his defeats came to Candidate in the Dania Beach Stakes in January at Gulfstream Park. Pletcher, second last year in the Penn Mile with Annapolis, is keenly aware of his formidable rival.

“We have met him several times, and he's a nice horse as well,” Pletcher said. “Racing could use more rivalries.”

Mark B. Grier's Candidate began his career last fall at Laurel Park then over the winter stamped himself as a force in the 3-year-old turf division by knocking off Major Dude and then finishing second to him in the Kitten's Joy.

In his most recent start, the Grade 3 Transylvania at Keeneland, Candidate finished a close-up sixth in a race that has proven a giant key heat, with third-place finisher Webslinger coming back to win the American Turf and runner-up Nagirroc running a powerhouse race to take the James Murphy Stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico.

Candidate, 5-2 on the morning line, had been doing his most effective running on or near the lead until the Transylvania.

“It didn't set up well last time at Keeneland,” trainer Arnaud Delacour said. “He was a little behind, and he's a free-running horse. We tried to rate a little bit. [The track] was speed favoring, but it just didn't set up well for him, that's all.

“We gave him a little time [off] since Keeneland, and it looks like he is ready to take a step forward.”

Trainer Jack Sisterson will send out Talla Racing, David Bernsen and Rockingham Ranch's Behind Enemy Lines (5-1), the easiest kind of two-length winner in April of the Cutler Bay Stakes. In his next start, the American Turf, the colt hopped in the gate and found himself well back early, buried behind horses along the inside. When jockey Flavian Pratt, who returns to ride in the Penn Mile, came off rail in the stretch to attack, the leaders did not come back to him.

“It was kind of a merry-go-round race,” Sisterson said.

Sisterson helped the owners privately purchase Behind Enemy Lines after the colt made two starts in Europe through his relationship with bloodstock agent Justin Casse and trainer Joseph O'Brien.

The Cutler Bay showed immediately showed the horse's quality.

“We kind of expected that for him,” said Sisterson, who will be making his first start at Penn National. “He was training like he'd put in a performance like that. Every work when he got to the U.S. got better and better.

Behind Enemy Lines' speed figures rose slightly in the American Turf even though the trip was less than ideal. Sisterson said he is looking forward to battling the likes of Major Dude and Candidate throughout the year.

“It's a good division,” he said of the 3-year-old turfers. “That's what racing needs, for these divisions to be competitive.

Defending Penn Mile-winning trainer James Lawrence returns this year with a Pennsylvania homebred, 20-1 long shot in James Chandley's Fletcher, but the Fair Hill-based conditioner sounds unflappable, especially after having won the race last year with 83-1 bomb Wow Whata Summer.

Fletcher has been soundly beaten in his two most recent starts, and never raced on grass, but Lawrence is full of confidence heading into the race.

“You're only a 3-year-old once, and [the Penn Mile] has been good to us,” he said. “This horse is very talented. We're so lucky at [the] Fair Hill [Training Center] to have all three surfaces – from dirt to synthetic to turf – and he impressed us on all three but really floats on the synthetic surface, really looks phenomenal, and when they do well on that, they usually do well on the turf.

“I'm a small stable, but when we get one that's talented, I'm not afraid to take shots. Over the years, we have knocked out nice races at big prices.”

Cash Is King and LC Racing's Tuskegee Airmen (6-1), like Fletcher, will try turf for the first time in the Penn Mile for trainer John Servis. The son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense won a stakes race at 2 at Delaware Park and then finished third in the Grade 2 Remsen. In his return to the races May 2 at Belmont Park, he sprinted to a fourth-place finish in the Gold Fever Stakes.

Tuskagee Airmen, however, has a solid turf pedigree: His great-grand-dam is multiple graded-stakes-placed turf mare Starry Dreamer, who produced Ecclesiastic, the two-time winner of the Grade 3 Jaipur Stakes on the grass at Belmont Park.

Nick Sanna Stables and Lynch Racing will also try the turf for the first time with their colt Recruiter (6-1), who has dominated in winning five of six starts for trainer Cathal Lynch, all by open lengths. His only defeat came over a muddy track from post position 13 in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct.

Recruiter also has a bit of turf blood in his pedigree, coming from the same female family as Grade 3 turf stakes winner Buffalo Man.

F L I Racing's Movistor (12-1), trained by Edward Vaughan, and Blackstone Farm's locally based three-time winner Upstate and Back, for trainer Naoise Agnew, complete the field.

Donald Dizney's Princess Bettina headlines a solid field of nine in the Penn Oaks, which, like the Penn Mile, is carded for a mile on the turf. After winning the China Doll for trainer Peter Eurton, the filly was transferred to the barn of Pletcher for an East Coast campaign.

“We've had her a little over a month now and got in a couple nice works at Churchill Downs,” Pletcher said. “We felt like this was a good spot for her. We'll see how she handles this and possibly stretch her out in other races.”

Five other runners entered have stakes experience, but the most dangerous threat to the favorite might be from the outside post in Klaravich Stables Royalty Interest (5-2), a late supplemental entry by powerful trainer Chad Brown.

The French-bred Royalty Interest effortlessly won on debut in March at Tampa Bay Downs and will have Ortiz in the irons for just her second career start.

Joseph Imbesi's Buy Land and See, a three-time stakes winner last year, makes his 6-year-old debut for trainer Guadalupe Preciado as the 5-2 favorite in the $100,000 With Anticipation Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for registered Pennsylvania-breds 3 years old and up.

The 5-2 favorite in the field of 12 should face stern competition from William Esworthy Jr.'s Dee Jay, a lightly raced 6-year-old who has four wins and three seconds in eight starts for trainer Lawrence.

The only off-the-board finish for Dee Jay came when he stumbled out of the gate in his second start and finished fifth.

“We gave him two years off,” Lawrence said. “He's come back and had three wins and a second, and that's been on dirt, and we think he's a better turf horse. He worked big – 1:12 and change [over six furlongs] – on Friday.”

Ortiz will ride the 8-5 favorite Heartyconstitution for trainer Joe Sharp in the $100,000 Lyphard Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the turf for Pennsylvania-bred fillies and mares 3 years old and up.

In the $100,000 Danzig Stakes, a six-furlong sprint for Pennsylvania-bred 3-year-olds, Imbesi's Gordian Knot is the 3-2 morning-line favorite in a field of seven with two stakes victories under his belt at Parx Racing and Presque Isle Downs.

In the final stakes on the card, the $100,000 New Start Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs, Darryl Abramowitz's Tappin Josie is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in a field of seven. Trained by Horacio De Paz, Tappin Josie has won four of five starts this year with a second-place finish two races back in the Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct. In her most recent start, she won going away in an allowance race at Penn National.

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